COVID-19 outbreaks at meat processing plants in the last few months have disrupted the supply chain for beef and poultry in Canada. The result has been significant increases in retail prices for beef products causing “consumers to suffer sticker shock.” With barbecue season well underway, it is likely meat consumers have noticed their grocery bills are higher than usual.

Earlier this year, Cargill in High River, Alberta, and JBS in Brooks, Alberta, had to fully or partially close to quarantine employees, clean and sanitize their facilities and implement new safety measures, including imposing restrictions on carpooling. Cargill closed for two weeks and JBS reduced its daily shifts from two to one. Since the Brooks and High River plants process around 70 per cent of Canada’s beef , the “slowdowns have created a backlog of cattle in feedlots estimated to have peaked at 130,000 cattle in May.”

Both plants are now back up and running at close to full capacity but “the effect on the supply chain and prices will take time to get back to normal,”4 says Kelly Smith-Fraser, chair of the Alberta Beef Producers. “Our best guess is that we will see the backlog in the fall. I’ve heard as long as most of 2020.” “But the key thing is to make sure that our major plants can maintain the capacity that they’re at, and they’re at either normal or near-normal.”
Dennis Laycraft, executive vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, hopes to see the system return to pre-COVID normal sometime this fall. He said there are typically fewer animals going to slaughter in the summer, which means the plants will be able to make up for lost time.

While prices for cattle have been lower than normal, the reduced ability to process combined with increased demand has driven up the price of beef for the consumer. On the bright side, now that processing has ramped up, consumer prices are expected to fall soon.

Chicken processing has also slowed down. According to Chicken Farmers of Canada (CFC) “since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, CFC and its provincial counterparts have been grappling with reduced processing capacity and volatile consumer demand, including spikes due to retail panic buying and drop-offs from the near-closure of Canada’s restaurant and foodservice sectors.” Unlike beef, the price of chicken has actually gone down over the last few months.

By all accounts, the supply chain for beef and poultry is on its path to recovery, but there could be additional challenges if future outbreaks occur at processing plants. With increased sanitization and safety procedures in place, the risk is lessened, but still there. We all hope that does not happen.